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Last Updated: Monday, 8 March, 2004, 15:20 GMT
Bin Laden not here, say tribesmen
By Haroon Rashid
BBC correspondent in South Waziristan

Grand council in South Waziristan
Tribesmen say they have defended the border for over 50 years
In the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan, local people are emphatic.

"Osama Bin Laden is not in this region," said local administrator Mohammad Azam Khan.

Similar views are expressed by Haji Behram Khan, wearing a traditional brown turban.

"We do not have any foreign elements hiding in our region, only poor Afghans live and work here on our fields.

"They are not Taleban or al-Qaeda members," he said.

South Waziristan has been cited many times as the most likely hideout of Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda elements.

But most tribesmen argue that it would be impossible to remain out of sight in this inhospitable region for long.

Mountainous terrain

"For us life is so difficult in towns of this remote region. How can someone survive out in the mountains?" asked local tribesman Gul Khan.

"Osama Bin Laden cannot live for long out there without some local support."

But this area is the place many outsiders believe is the hideaway of the world's most wanted man.

The reason for this suspicion is the sympathy of local tribes for the Taleban and al-Qaeda.

In recent manoeuvres last month, the Pakistan army said it arrested 21 al-Qaeda suspects in Zari Lita area of South Waziristan.

Officials say more operations are on the cards if local tribes do not co-operate by handing over suspects.

Every day, more troops are arriving in the area.

The territory of Waziristan shares an 80km-long border with Afghanistan's Paktika province, a trouble spot for US and Afghan forces in their battle against al-Qaeda and Taleban renegade elements.

But while most tribesmen deny the presence of Osama Bin Laden, the authorities in this semi-autonomous region admit some al-Qaeda elements could be hiding there.

Dealing with tribesmen is like playing a chess game - we know how, when and where to put pressure
Assistant political agent Rehmatullah Wazir

There are lots of places for him to conceal himself: South Waziristan can best be described as Pakistan's Wild West.

The whole region is a mass of mostly arid mountains and hills, and is difficult to live in.

The population - mostly Pashtun - is not more than a million.

Armed resistance

Inhabiting the region are the Waziris, reputedly one of the most warlike tribes living along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

It has nine clans, with the biggest being Zali Khel, famed for its armed resistance to the British army in the 19th century.

We do not have any foreign elements hiding in our region - only poor Afghans live and work here
Haji Behram Khan, South Waziristan tribal

Waziristan was described by a former British Army officer around that time as "a land of high and difficult hills, deep and rugged defiles, brave and hardy people, independent and patriotic."

The suspicion of local support for al-Qaeda and Taleban elements is forcing the government to come down hard on local tribes.

The presence of the Pakistan military does not go down well with the tribesmen.

Pakistan guard with al-Qaeda suspects in South Waziristan
The military have stepped up their presence in South Waziristan

"We have been safeguarding Pakistan's western border for the last 56 years," said Zali Khel's chief, Malik Noor Ali, "and we did not give a single inch during this time.

"We can defend it even now, and we do not need the army here."

The tribesmen are finding it difficult to digest what they say is Pakistan's U-turn in relation to the Taleban.

"For years we have been hearing that Taleban are good," said an angry Malik Behram Khan.

"They are holy warriors, but overnight they have been branded as terrorists.

"Yet they were helped and trained by the Pakistan Army."

Confrontation

The continuing tension means that the tribes of the area regularly hold traditional jirgas or meetings to defuse tension and save their area from further bloodshed.

But local government officials play down the possibility of confrontation.

"Dealing with tribesmen is like playing a chess game," said the assistant political agent for Wana, Rehmatullah Wazir.

"We know how, when and where to put pressure."

Villager in South Waziristan
The Pakistani army has sometimes clashed with villagers

And the tribesmen seem to feel the heat.

Senior tribal journalist Sailab Mehsud says that the hunt for al-Qaeda is bringing a bad name to an area already lacking in education and development.

He argues it is nurturing religious extremism and narrow-mindedness.

"Look where the world is heading and we're still entangled in 17th century religious extremism," he said.

The authorities say they are hopeful the situation will soon return to normal.

"I am an optimist, this region has a very bright future," said political agent Azam Khan.


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